In the early Eighties, a guy named John McCain moved to Mesa to run for Congress. When opponents cried "carpetbagger," McCain simply told them -- and anyone else who would listen -- that the longest he'd ever lived any place in his life was five and a half years, the time he spent in Vietnamese prison camps. That sure shut 'em up, and the rest is Arizona political history. McCain won that race, and the next, and then three terms in the U.S. Senate. And now he's running for president.
Scores of books have been published on the Vietnam experience, many by former prisoners of war who were guests at the Hanoi Hilton along with John McCain. Most were published in the 1970s, shortly after the war.
But McCain has waited more than 26 years to publish his own memoir, Faith of My Fathers, which also chronicles the experiences of his father and grandfather, both four-star Navy admirals.
He's waited, not so coincidentally, 'til the eve of the 2000 presidential election.
You've gotta hand it to the senator. If he's not elected president, maybe he can start his own public relations firm. The release of Faith of My Fathers, which McCain is scheduled to sign at Changing Hands Bookstore in Tempe on Tuesday, September 14, has been timed perfectly. What better way to keep your name in the headlines and on the airwaves -- gratis -- than a book tour?
And what story could be more poignant than that of U.S. Navy Lieutenant Colonel John Sidney McCain III? In October 1967, McCain was shot down over a lake in Hanoi. He broke two arms and a leg on impact. Angry Vietnamese peasants pulled him from the water and beat him. When the Vietnamese brass learned that McCain's father was the commander of the Navy's European forces, they offered him early release. McCain refused. When McCain's father was transferred to the Pacific, the POW was offered release again. When he refused, he was beaten. And so on. He came home with the other POWs in 1973 withered and bent, his hair turned snow white.
As he readily admits throughout the book, McCain was no saint. A Navy brat in the true sense of the term, he was nicknamed "McNasty" by his Annapolis classmates and finished fifth from the bottom of his class. He refused early release in Vietnam, but did sign a confession of war crimes, a violation of the Code of Conduct. McCain returned home from Vietnam to his wife, Carol, but their marriage fell apart, and he cheated; they divorced. McCain married Cindy, daughter of local Anheuser-Busch distributor Jim Hensley, shortly before he made his first bid for Congress.
In an interview last spring, McCain's co-author and chief of staff, Mark Salter, said that the thing that struck him most about the senator as they prepared the book was McCain's humility.
"When I worked on this book with him, he just kept saying, 'Other guys had it a lot worse. I think they took it easier on me because of who my dad was. . . . When they tied me in ropes they'd roll my sleeve up to give it a little padding between the rope and my bicep, you know, little things I noticed.'"
Salter and the rest of McCain's boosters see their candidate as The War Hero, and thus the perfect antidote for a nation reeling from the effects of a draft-dodging-blowjob-loving lame duck who didn't inhale, and a front-runner who won't talk about the good old days.
That remains to be seen. But one thing is almost certain: Faith of My Fathers will be a best seller. And a very effective campaign ad.
John McCain is scheduled to sign Faith of My Fathers: A Family Memoir at noon Tuesday, September 14, at the Tempe Square location of Changing Hands Bookstore, 6428 South McClintock in Tempe. Admission is free. For details call 480-730-0205.
See Running John for more on John McCain.